Watching his peers in high school art class, David Rhoads wasn’t sure he was cut out to be an artist.
Now he spends virtually every waking hour making, handling or viewing art.
The 2010 Kansas City Art Institute alum has emerged as one of the most promising of the city’s young talents, whose own work is inspired by the masterworks he handles in his day job at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Rhoads was in his element in fall 2013, when he spent six months packing objects in the “Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” exhibit for its opening in Paris.
But even before that, Rhoads had become entranced by a circa 1850 Arikara shield painted with a haunting image of a buffalo.
It’s not just an animal, says Gaylord Torrence, the museum’s senior curator of American Indian arts, who added the work to the collection in 2004. “This buffalo is a spirit helper that appeared in a vision of the man who made it or had it made.”
Rhoads, an associate preparator, fell under the buffalo’s spell.
“Look at him and he won’t let you go,” he said during a recent studio visit. “(I thought) I want to make a painting like that.”
A horned visage is clearly visible amid the welter of strokes and built-up surfaces in a series of small paintings on paper, which Rhoads titled “The Great One.” But the paintings are not simply an homage to the Nelson’s shield. Like most of Rhoads’ work, it also draws from his personal experience — in this case an image printed on a favorite tank top — what the artist calls one of his “seemingly silly starting points.”
“They are mythic, cosmic, and subconscious, but also very much a part of my everyday life,” Rhoads said.
His iterations of “The Great One” motif are executed on casually torn out sketchbook pages and posted as part of a grid-like array of small works on the walls of his studio. The title, he says, is “tongue in cheek.”
The mask-like images, rendered in various sizes and colors — black on black, outlined in pink; green on black with blazing white eyeballs and sometimes coupled with text — seem to reach past both the shield and the shirt, boiling up with expressionist immediacy from the collective unconscious. Iconically positioned in the center of the page, Rhoads’ “The Great One” carries the insistence of an archetype.
In one work from the series, a small, crudely rendered silhouette of a buffalo’s head asserts a talismanic presence in a luminous painterly white field, emblazoned in capital letters with the words “The Great One.” The three words dominate the page; they appear again in the center of the work, partially obscured, providing the visual equivalent of an echo.
The piece is one of two works Rhoads is showing now in a group show at Haw Contemporary, his first exposure in a commercial gallery.
Gallery owner Bill Haw had been following Rhoads’ work for a while. The new small paintings “just feel like an extension of him, honest and unguarded,” he said. “David’s whole thing is just really refreshing in a world where sometimes things get overly serious.”
Rhoads has been actively exhibiting since graduation, in group shows at artist-run spaces such as Spray Booth Gallery and in the Kansas City Flatfile exhibit at Block Artspace. In “Playtime,” a two-person exhibit in November 2012 with Matt Jacobs at City Ice Arts, he exhibited five large paintings, some with tablet-like additions.
Rhoads said he crossed an important threshold following the City Ice Arts show. He had been sharing a house with Jacobs and painter Paul Smith and felt distracted by all the art talk. He moved with his girlfriend, Mallory Fletchall, who runs a vintage shop on etsy.com, to a small house in the West Plaza area.
Rhoads and Fletchall installed simple furnishings and hung his growing collection of works by Kansas City artists on the walls. They include an eye-catching tape painting by Garry Noland and a dynamic text piece by Rhoads’ close friend Stephen Proski.
Rhoads has an eye for the best of his colleagues’ production — he has curated group shows of local work for Block Artspace, City Ice and Greenlease Gallery — and occasionally ventures further afield.
When he saw the Tomoo Gokita exhibit at Bill Brady Gallery in November 2012, Rhoads decided he had to have one of the Japanese artist’s dramatic grisaille abstractions. Brady let him pay it off a couple hundred dollars at a time over the course of 15 months; in January 2014 Gokita had a one-person show at the prestigious Mary Boone Gallery in New York.
“I Want to be You”
Settling into his new digs, Rhoads set up a studio in the basement, where he poured himself into the creation of a body of intense small paintings, including “The Great One” and another series inspired by the constellation Orion.
“My changed living arrangement brought solitude and thought,” he said. “I found freedom in isolation. I was inspired to take risks and not worry about the latest trends and theories.”
The Orion theme harks to his childhood.
“It was the first constellation my grandma showed me,” Rhoads said.
Initially attracted by the formal possibilities of the Orion figure, Rhoads over the course of 15 months turned the image of the mythological hunter into a potent symbol of quest — for truth, self and meaning — enacted against the backdrop of the cosmos.
The works made their public debut in “I Want to be You,” a spring 2014 one-person show at the artist-run 1522 St. Louis gallery in the West Bottoms. The exhibit comprised roughly two dozen small paintings on tan-colored, fibrous paper, carelessly torn from a sketchbook.
“The tan is gentle and accepts color,” Rhoads said. “I like the aging feel and the bad tear out — the contrast between casual and precious.”
The paintings present Orion in various guises. In “The Blue One,” he appears to be flying. “Night Jewel” translates the figure into an hourglass form with three dots of white for the stars on his belt and four more denoting his hands and feet. The stance has both a supplicant and a triumphant feel.
In another piece, he couples a tiny rendition of the figure with the words, “Dream High,” an allusion to a popular Korean soap opera. Over the course of the series, he loads the image with connotations ranging from aspiration to free fall; in some pieces, the figure takes on overtones of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, invoking Orion’s identification with Osiris, the Egyptian god of rebirth and the underworld.
“Orion, The Great Red Dragon” (2013) keys off “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed With the Sun,” an early 19th century work by William Blake. The artist is a favorite source of inspiration for Rhoads, and Beverly Ahern, an artist and collector who owns two works by Rhoads, sees him as continuing the “romantic spirit of the poet/artist.”
“David’s imagery is unconventional, messy and cosmic, remembering what was and searching for the potential of what will be,” Ahern said in an email.
All of the works are linked by a sense of longing, and their showing at 1522 St. Louis was enlarged by an eloquent and inventive essay by Henry Fording Eddins, who assumes Orion’s voice:
“It’s not often y’get to see yourself in so many ways.… But, here and there I am, up on these walls, changed every time. Here, stout’n strong … there, delicate … a little baby and a grown-up monster …”
“Maybe I still don’t know art from anything else among the stars,” he concludes, “but down here, from David’s pages, what I do see is real little moments. Me through him. changing, growing, giving in. Playing like kids to find the stuff of old sages.”
“I Want to Believe”
In a corner of his studio, Rhoads has pinned up images that inspire him, including illustrations of Super Saiyan, a character from the Dragon Ball Z anime series. One of Super Saiyan’s attributes is a flame shape, which makes a repeated and varied appearance in Rhoads paintings, where it blazes from the center of the page like the biblical burning bush.
In his newest works, Rhoads is merging elements of all three motifs — the Great One, Orion and the Super Saiyan flame — and allowing them to morph into new forms such as the tiered “Castle” that appears in the second painting he is showing at Haw.
The visionary landscape, “Out Here on the Mountain” (2014), represents another line of experimentation.
“It came about,” Rhoads said, “because I had moved the Marsden Hartley and Paul Cezanne mountain paintings over at the Nelson and saw the way the two of them had immortalized themselves in those mountains. I thought if I could go onto the mountain I might learn something … the floating figure (in the painting) was about some sort of spiritual experience.”
“Out Here on the Mountain” is one of 15 pieces Rhoads is showing this month in an exhibit at the nonprofit Fort Gondo gallery in St. Louis, his first one-person show out of town. He is calling it “I Want to Believe,” a phrase borrowed from a famous poster on “X-Files,” yet another of the pop culture sources he mixes with the high art influences he is steeped in at the museum.
“I’m showing a mix of all three ideas with the work revolving around this idea of belief or faith,” Rhoads explained, “in both the power of painting and in the power of honest content.”
Jessica Baran, director of Fort Gondo, admires the “ecstatic quality about Rhoads’ gestures on paper,” in which she discerns the same kind of “awkwardly sublime” sincerity found in outsider art.
“It’s not something I see often,” Baran said in a recent email, “a kind of successful de-skilling limned in skill that makes his work wholly strange and clearly his own.”